Friday, June 03, 2011

a classic of NT scholarship

I just finished reading a classic piece of New Testament scholarship, Morna Hooker's essay, "On Using the Wrong Tool" (Theology 75 [1972]: 570–81). I'm currently working on two essays, one espousing an end of form-critical influence over contemporary NT media and memory studies and one on the "demise of [the criteria of] authenticity." Hooker's essay contributes to both pieces nicely and has a number of acerbic turns of phrase (I intend this as a compliment). For example:
First, and most obviously, [form criticism] is a literary tool. It tells us about the form of the material; it examines the shape of a piece of tradition and classifies it. This be interesting to those who like doing that sort of thing, but I do not think it is particularly illuminating to be told that a miracle story is a miracle story . . . At this stage, form-criticism is being used simply as a literary tool, to sort the material into piles according to its shape—and my reaction is a somewhat bored but polite "How interesting". (571)

That's beautiful. Hooker then goes on to discuss (and concede) form criticism's utility for probing the function of this or that unit of Jesus tradition in the early communities of his followers. As I read this section, I kept objecting that Dibelius and Bultmann weren't really after the tradition's form or even it's function; they sought the tradition's origin. This, in my estimation, is the egregious over-reach of form-critical analysis.

So I was delighted to read,
Form-criticism, then, tells us something about the shape of the material, and it attempts on the basis of that shape to tell us something about the way in which the material was being used—about its function within the community. It is at this stage, it seems to me, that the form-critic gets carried away. For he next tries to deduce, from the material which he has before him, what the earlier forms might have been; it is at this stage that he begins to use form-criticism as a historical tool. . . . The trap into which the form-critic so often falls is that he equates the Sitz im Leben with the origin of the material; the Sitz im Leben is not simply the "setting" of the material but, according to Fuller, its "creative milieu". (572, 573; all italics in the original; citing R. H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study [1963], 40)

I simply cannot understand how anyone as creative or insightful as Dibelius or Bultmann or any number of their impressive and inquisitive protégés ever actually thought that the dissolution of the written Gospels into individual pericopae and the form-critical analysis of the remaining textual shards ever did put them in touch with the first moment of this or that story from and/or about Jesus. To return to Hooker, she accepts Fuller's point (re: Sitze im Leben as "creative milieu[x]"), "so long as by 'creative' is meant 'that which licked the material into its present shape" (573). Isn't that a lovely image?! But no, we're not talking about "licking into shape" this or that saying of Jesus; too often we think we're looking into the birth of the Jesus tradition. For this task, form criticism is patently "the wrong tool."

Most of the remainder of the essay concerns the criteria of dissimilarity and coherence. Her insights on the assumptions undergirding the criteria and how critics have employed them to verify or disqualify a saying as actually something Jesus may have said are stunning. Simply put, she sees clearly the full range (or at least a broader range than is normally seen) of issues involved with adjudicating authentic tradition on the basis of reputed dissimilarity from Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, etc.

Unfortunately, Hooker was not able to envision an alternative historical-critical research program, and so she asks, "And what tools should he use in this task? He must, alas, use the tools we have been discussing, for there are no others, and there are unlikely to be any better ones discovered" (580–81). I'm reminded of Dale Allison's book, Jesus of Nazareth (Fortress Press, 1998), in which he came to the very same conclusion:
This state of affairs does not, however, mean that we should lay them aside. For in truth we have nothing better in the scholarly toolshed; at least I have not turned up anything better. Apparently we must reconcile ourselves tot he unhappy fact that our methods are defective and may often mislead us. Probably, as will be explained later, our best recourse is to figure out how to improve and use our existing indices, unwieldy as they are, under the guidance of an interpretive model established independently of those indices. (1998:6–7)

Of course, over ten years later Allison threw down the criteria and pursued a different historiography of Jesus (see my posts here and here). I will be interested to see how Hooker responds to this new state of affairs when she writes the forward to the upcoming volume, Jesus, History, and the Demise of Authenticity, of which both Allison and I are contributors.

One last quote from Hooker, simply because I think it gets at precisely the problem that hampered critical history of Jesus programs, particularly (though not solely) in the second half of the twentieth century:
The fact that I have questioned the value of form-criticism and certain other critical methods as tools in getting back to the Jesus of History does not mean that I am trying to offer comfort to those who have all along maintained a traditional "conservative" approach. I venture to suggest that I am being more radical than those who are commonly labelled "radical". For it seems to me that conservative and radical alike have both succumbed to the temptation to seek for certainty—and to believe that it can be achieved. The "radical", though he may eschew the old form of certainty, is seeking another. He looks for some kind of scientific verification—a litmus paper test which can be applied to the sayings of Jesus, which turns either pink or blue, according to whether they are or are not authentic, so that he may sort his material into neat piles.

A Pile of Poohs
New Testament scholarship has certainly produced myriad "piles" in the nearly four decades since Hooker's essay was first published. These, however, have generally lacked the neatness their creators have claimed on their behalf.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One problem is that we have no historical data about early Christianity. We have no archeological data RE the christian origins. And all our texts come from a single source, the group itself. Plus, our texts come from a very long time AFTER the creation of the group. Our earliest somewhat complete collection of text comes from about 200CE and the Chester Beatty Papyri. Which is over 150 years after the events they claim to talk about.

In addition, most of the study of Christianity has come not from folks with degrees in history. Most of our stuff comes from folks with degrees from religion schools. These religion schools are not history schools, but people mistakenly sometimes call these people "historians". So that causes further problems.

In addition, the vast majority of the writings on early Christianity come from folks that are members of the Christian supernaturalistic group themselves. This causes further additional problems.

The good news is that some people with history degrees are beginning to talk about write on the subject.


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